Wilfred Owen wrote ‘A Terre’ about the aftermath of the war. In it, a soldier reminisces about his days before the war – the days when he had full functionality of his limbs, and could do whatever he wanted – to an unknown listener, most likely a young and influential boy.
Near the end of World War One, there were an estimated fifty hospitals in operation, both for physical and mental illnesses. As soon as the patients were deemed fit for the outside, they would be ejected, return to their paltry pension, and often very badly-fitted homes, to waste away in pain and indignity. Very few soldiers who returned from France had any sort of positive life afterward – those with physical disabilities or mental problems caused by the war were reduced to begging in the streets, and those who were more or less fit to work would return to the same backbreaking labor that they had joined up to get out of in the first place.
“The cheering rose to a roar, the soldiers’ faces crowded in the open doors, flowers flew through the air and all at once many of the people in the square began to weep.
“Until we meet again! We’ll be home with you soon!”
“Don’t be afraid! We’ll soon be back!”
“We’ll be back to celebrate Christmas with Mum!”
“Yes, yes, yes—come back in one piece!”
– Elfriede Kuh watching the 149th Infantry regiment leaving Schneidemuhl on 4th of August, 1914. From ‘The Beauty and the Sorrow’, by Peter Englund and Peter Graves.
When the war was declared in 1914, neither side really believed that it was going to be much of a war. Soldiers on both sides bought into the belief that they would ship out, battle for their respective sides, win by a sweeping margin, and be back home by Christmas. The astonishing lack of information that led the war to start in the first place succeeded in delivering nearly ten million soldiers to bloody, watery deaths in the fields of Southern France.
By 1915, with the war dragging on, soldiers had started to lose hope that they would ever return home. By 1916, the draft was introduced in England, to force soldiers to join up – the swell of patriots that had joined up for what was known as the ‘Volunteer army’ of 1914-1915. Men would join up in groups – men from the same factory or football team, or bank – and would be sent off immediately for training. By 1916, however, the truth of the war was evident: it was not dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It was terrifying and painful and cruel and never-ending. Between disease and madness and the constant onslaught of rain, and the shoddy homecoming that soldiers who were pushed out of duty by injury came home to, very few soldiers still joined up.
A Terre Analysis
(Being the philosophy of many Soldiers.)
Stanzas One and Two
Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.
Be careful; can’t shake hands now; never shall.
Both arms have mutinied against me,-brutes.
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats.
I tried to peg out soldierly,-no use!
One dies of war like any old disease.
This bandage feels like pennies on my eyes.
I have my medals?-Discs to make eyes close.
My glorious ribbons?-Ripped from my own back
In scarlet shreds. (That’s for your poetry book.)
Wilfred Owen has never been short of criticism for the war, but the opening to ‘A Terre’ may be one of the bleakest ones he has ever written. The image of a soldier ‘blind and three parts shell’ immediately puts to mind the image of an automaton, a machine that has run down and is of no further purpose. It dehumanizes him to the point of being completely ‘other’, and monstrous: blind, filled with shrapnel, nervous system a mess due to shellshock (‘my fingers fidget like ten idle brats’). The image of glory that young and impressionable men were battered with daily in the attempt to get them to join up is broken all at once by the description of this particular soldier, and his injuries.
Moving on, Owen points out the futility of glorification – the medals ‘discs to make eyes close’; the ‘glorious ribbons? Ripped from my own back/ In scarlet shreds. (That’s for your poetry book.)’. The sacrifices that soldiers made in order to achieve glory were not worth it. The pain the soldier feels – in particularly the reference to the ribbons being ‘ripped from his own back’ puts into perspective the fact that the sacrifices made were often not worth it. All the ribbons and the medals in the world, Owen states, were glories that the soldier achieved, but the cost was far too high.
A short life and a merry one, my buck!
We used to say we’d hate to live dead-old,-
Yet now…I’d willingly be puffy, bald,
And patriotic. Buffers catch from boys
At least the jokes hurled at them. I suppose
Little I’d ever teach a son, but hitting,
Shooting, war, hunting, all the arts of hurting.
Well, that’s what I learnt,-that, and making money.
The bitter tone to ‘A Terre’ is exacerbated here by the way the soldier goes back to his youth – ‘we used to say we’d hate to live dead-old’ – and brings forward, once more, the idea that the soldiers who joined up for the war, particularly those who were ‘pals regiments’, that is, from the same football team, or bank, or workplace, were young boys drawn in by the glory of it, by the uniform, by, as Owen wrote in Disabled.
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
Only to find that the return home was not as exuberant as the leaving was. That when he returned home, monstrously changed, very few people came to see him. In ‘A Terre,’ the idea is similar: the burning spirit of youth incited the soldier to join up, and now that he is old and blind and injured, he regrets it. He also mourns his own legacy – that everything he could pass on to generations is ‘all the arts of hurting’, that he’ll only serve to perpetuate this war-mentality.
Your fifty years ahead seem none too many?
Tell me how long I’ve got? God! For one year
To help myself to nothing more than air!
One Spring! Is one too good to spare, too long?
Spring wind would work its own way to my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.
The soldier is dying; he laments the fact that he wasted his life in war, that his life is now over so quickly.
My servant’s lamed, but listen how he shouts!
When I’m lugged out, he’ll still be good for that.
Here in this mummy-case, you know, I’ve thought
How well I might have swept his floors for ever.
I’d ask no nights off when the bustle’s over,
Enjoying so the dirt. Who’s prejudiced
Against a grimed hand when his own’s quite dust,
Less live than specks that in the sun-shafts turn,
Less warm than dust that mixes with arms’ tan?
I’d love to be a sweep, now, black as Town,
Yes, or a muckman. Must I be his load?
We can tell from the language that the soldier is high-ranking – most likely an officer. The fact that he has a servant, something that only the highest ranks in the army had, and the formal, stiff diction, help to believe that he was in charge of a group of men. We can assume that these thoughts were thoughts that Owen himself had – ‘little I’d ever teach a son, but hitting’.
In ‘A Terre,’ the soldier envies his servant, lame but healthy, not dying slowly in a bed of injuries sustained in war. He laments the fact that all he wants now is to be given a chance to live again, to live better again, and he states, ‘I’ve thought / how well I might have swept his floors for ever.’ Even the most menial of jobs is better than lying in bed, dying in honor, but dying all the same. Owen’s use of diction here, the way the officer’s bitterness swells when he states about his wish to ‘have swept his floors for ever’ hammer home the pure misery that the soldier feels at his fate.
O Life, Life, let me breathe,-a dug-out rat!
Not worse than ours the lives rats lead-
Nosing along at night down some safe rut,
They find a shell-proof home before they rot.
Dead men may envy living mites in cheese,
Or good germs even. Microbes have their joys,
And subdivide, and never come to death.
Certainly flowers have the easiest time on earth.
‘I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone’
Shelley would tell me. Shelley would be stunned:
The dullest Tommy hugs that fancy now.
‘Pushing up daisies’ is their creed, you know.
He even envies the dug-out rats, the germs, the microbes, and the flowers, that live simply, but live within their capacity. More importantly, it is the inglorious nature of death that attracts the soldier’s attention now. He thinks back to Shelley – a Romantic-era poet, whose idea of death was as a natural return to earth: ‘I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone’, / Shelley would tell me. Shelley would be stunned: / The dullest Tommy hugs that fancy now.’
‘Tommy’ is slang for a British soldier. By stating that only ‘the dullest Tommy hugs that fancy now’, we can see how the very idea of death, the very notion of gloriously dying for your country, has become something that’s overstayed its welcome. There’s nothing glorious about dying, there’s nothing so wonderful about returning to the earth. It’s a waste. As the soldier draws closer and closer to his own demise, his bitterness over his fate – and over the poetry and the propaganda that led to this – leaves him to think about the things that he himself must have once upon a time believed. Owen, who was classically trained in literature, is almost certainly referring to himself in this stanza and repeating thoughts that he himself has had. The poetry of before, which was used as propaganda, cannot hold up to the injustice and the hideousness of war, no matter how lovely it remains.
To grain, then, go my fat, to buds my sap,
For all the usefulness there is in soap.
D’you think the Boche will ever stew man-soup?
Some day, no doubt, if…Friend, be very sure
I shall be better off with plants that share
More peaceably the meadow and the shower.
Soft rains will touch me,-as they could touch once,
And nothing but the sun shall make me ware.
Your guns may crash around me. I’ll not hear;
Or, if I wince, I shall not know I wince.
One of the most common prevailing ideas of World War I era Britain was the rumor that the Germans utilized their corpses to produce soap and other products. It was first produced as a rumor among the Belgian and British soldiers, which eventually made its way back to the United Kingdom, and from there, to The Times, in 1917. The German Corpse Factory, as it was known, was later claimed to be a made-up story by John Charteris, the former head of army intelligence; however, it was one of the most common beliefs during the war, and, even here, finds its way into ‘A Terre.’
There’s an upsurge to ‘A Terre’ now, a little hope that leads the officer to decide that he would be ‘better off with plants that share / more peaceably the meadow and the shower’, rather than living on in a world where this cruelty exists. He tells the listener, again, ‘your guns may crash around me. I’ll not hear;’ thereby showing that once dead, the only good thing about it will be his lack of awareness about the war. He won’t know what’s happening around him, and the war will be unable to take from him more things.
Stanzas Nine to Eleven
Don’t take my soul’s poor comfort for your jest.
Soldiers may grow a soul when turned to fronds,
But here’s the thing’s best left at home with friends.
My soul’s a little grief, grappling your chest,
To climb your throat on sobs; easily chased
On other sighs and wiped by fresher winds.
Carry my crying spirit till it’s weaned
To do without what blood remained these wounds.
That short-lived hope is buried underneath the final few stanzas. ‘A Terre’ seems to fluctuate between hope and despair, however near the end, the soldier returns to his original bitterness. He states that ‘My soul’s a little grief, grappling your chest, / To climb your throat on sobs; easily chased / On other sighs and wiped by fresher winds’, thus showing that he knows he won’t be remembered by this young soldier that he’s speaking to. He’ll be thought of for a little while, and then he’ll be removed from memory ‘by fresher winds’. Once again, it draws to attention the pure futility of war and sacrifice – everything he has fought and suffered for is going to die with him.
The last couplet of ‘A Terre’ pulls a little bit of spiritual uncertainty into the mix. ‘Carry my crying spirit till it’s weaned / To do without what blood remained these wounds’. The symbol of blood is typically used for images of salvation, however, given the angry tone of ‘A Terre,’ here it stands more for an expression of guilt than of salvation. Here, Owen perhaps identifies that his once-unshakeable religious certainty has taken a beating, as of late, and that he’s not sure yet what to think of the war, and what to think of what will happen to him when he dies.
‘A Terre’ has been typically assumed to have been started in December 1917, and finished a mere three days after it was begun, to be edited in July 1918. It was included in the 1919 publication by the Sitwells, WHEELS, and it is the longest of all of Owen’s poems, coming to about 65 lines. ‘A Terre’ was most likely written just after he was discharged from Craiglockhart and piggybacked upon his other poem, ‘Wild With All Regrets,’ upon which he’d written to Sassoon, stating:
If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say ‘Here is poetry’ it will be so for me. What do you think of my vowel-rime stunt?